About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Saturday, April 24, 2010


As the elections for next year get closer, the contours of its alignments are becoming apparent. The election of Norbert Mao to lead DP and Olara Otunnu to lead UPC – Uganda’s founding political parties – adds an important dimension to the leadership of NRM by Yoweri Museveni and that of FDC by Kizza Besigye.

Mao and Otunnu are ethnic Acholi; Besigye and Museveni, ethnic Banyankore. There is something significant in the fact that all the leading parties in Uganda now are led by individuals from two ethnic groups. The two have historically provided the measure of our politics. Since before independence, the most consequential politicians and soldiers in our country have tended to come from these groups.

For instance, in 1962, UPC and DP divided their votes almost equally in Ankole and Acholi. Alex Ojera was a powerful influence in UPC while Latim, leader of the opposition in parliament, was a powerful influence in DP. While DP was led in parliament initially by Basil Bataringaya from Ankole, UPC had Grace Ibingira from Ankole as a powerful Secretary General. When Bataringaya crossed to UPC and became minister of internal affairs, Boniface Byanyima became a dominant figure in DP.

The arrest of Ibingira in 1966 marked the beginning of the 1966 crisis, while the assassination of Brig. Okoya (from Acholi) in 1969 marked the beginning of the fall of Milton Obote in 1971. Officers from Ankole (Ndahendekire, Kakuhikire and Katabarwa) were consequential in the army in the 1960s even though not to the degree of officers like Okoya.

The dominance of Banyankore and Acholi was repeated in 1980, even though there were significant realignments engendered by the war that removed Idi Amin. Thus, although in 1980 UPC won all the parliamentary seats in Acholi, the two regions still provided the most powerful supporters and opponents of the UPC government.

Men like Ojok Mulozi and Andrew Adimola were as powerful in DP as Otema Alimadi and Akena P’Ojok were in UPC, and Tito and Bazilio Okello were in the UNLA, and helped define the Obote II presidency. Equally so for DP, where Francis Bwengye (secretary general), Byanyima (national president), and Sam Kutesa (Shadow Attorney General) came from Ankole. Yona Kanyomozi, Edward Rurangaranga, Ephraim Kamuntu, Chris Rwakasisi, Adonia Tiberondwa (RIP) and Patrick Rubaihayo were a powerful influence in UPC.

Out of eight seats in Mbabara District, UPC and DP got four each. It is therefore clear from our history that our political parties never divided people along ethnic lines as Museveni has always claimed and as “scholars” on Uganda have written. The contours of division tended to follow religion – but only in some places. However, this changed fundamentally under the NRM to reflect Museveni’s claims that political parties divided people along ethnic lines.

Under the NRM, we have seen Ankole vote overwhelmingly for Museveni while Acholi has voted overwhelmingly for his opponents – first for Paul Ssemogerere and later for Besigye – who are themselves not Acholi. However, although Museveni tried to redefine politics along ethnicity, he only succeeded with the masses in Ankole. Some of the strongest opponents of Museveni, like Besigye, have come from Ankole itself.

Museveni used the war in Luwero in an attempt to realign Uganda’s politics from religion towards ethnicity. The prolonged war against the LRA reflects how Museveni defined the nature of the challenge he faced from Joseph Kony. Although LRA does not represent the popular feelings of the political leaders from Acholi or the feelings of ordinary people, Museveni defined it so.

Museveni saw not just the LRA, but the Acholi as a whole as the enemy; LRA was only the armed wing of the resistance. To get the south behind him, he sought to undermine the national platform UPC and DP had built. He presented the military brutality of the UNLA as an Acholi assault on Baganda thereby casting political rivalry in ethnic terms. This has had powerful implications.

For example, Olara Otunnu is a highly intelligent, articulate, experienced, and internationally exposed politician. He is also sober, calm and reflective. But given the way Museveni has realigned our politics, it will be difficult for Otunnu to become a powerful flag bearer for the opposition ticket, except as a vice presidential running mate. His service in the Okello-Okello regime gives Museveni the excuse to play on the north-south divide. And, in order to defeat Museveni, one will need the support of Mengo and of Baganda.

Although historically Acholi and Baganda have had excellent relations, Museveni used the war in Luwero to undermine this. Some of the most powerful MPs from Buganda region like Daudi Ochieng (elected by the Lukiiko in 1962) and Ojok Mulozi (elected on a DP ticket in Kampala in 1980) were Acholi.

With the ethnicisation of the Luwero conflict, Bagandans eager to vote for the opposition may be forced to stay at home if Otunnu is the candidate. Mao is a breath of fresh air in Uganda’s politics because he is among the few politicians on whom ethnic identity reflects least. His threats that the north may secede have not significantly damaged his reputation. However, there is little to his credit that can generate the kind of euphoric support around his candidature like Besigye does.

If the opposition are to stand a good chance in the election, they need to hold their support in northern Uganda, increase their percentage vote in the east and push Museveni’s share of votes in Buganda and Busoga to below 50%. Without Buganda and Busoga, no amount of rigging can rescue Museveni from electoral defeat.

Therefore, if the opposition are looking for a single candidate, it is seems best for them to choose Besigye. Besigye has strong appeal in Buganda because of his role in the Luwero war and because of his close links with Mengo (through his marriage).

However, the opposition should not take the northern vote for granted. It will be necessary for Besigye to find accommodation with Otunnu and Mao in order to keep Acholi and the wider north firmly in his corner. In designing an opposition alliance therefore, the issues of identity will have to play a stronger role than ever before.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Mugisha Muntu’s challenge to Kizza Besigye for the presidential candidature of FDC reveals the major dilemma facing the opposition in Uganda. Besigye has twice demonstrated extraordinary courage by challenging President Yoweri Museveni. Yet the factors that made him galvanise Ugandans in support of his candidature also carry its fundamental limitation.
This discussion will deliberately skirt the likely implications of the candidatures of Olara Otunnu and Norbert Mao, the two politicians representing Uganda’s oldest parties – UPC and DP. For now I will focus on Besigye and Muntu, and reserve Otunnu and Mao for another day.

Museveni has carefully cultivated his brand as an African strongman always willing to use “his” army to “crash” any opponent – violent or pacifist. To credibly challenge him has always required his opponent to demonstrate a strong will, a tough and resilient spirit, and an ability to rally support of the military.

Besigye embodied this profile; his record as a military man reinforced his credentials as the most credible challenger. His surprise announcement in 2000 that he was going to take on Museveni and his dramatic and courageous return from exile in 2005 revealed both the iron and steel inside the man.

Indeed, in both campaigns, Besigye talked tough and sounded belligerent. He claimed that 90% of the army was behind him, threatened army generals and powerful NRM politicians with prosecution, if he won, and presented himself as the man for this task. This reinforced his reputation as a hammer to knock Museveni out of power, a factor that galvanised fanatical support from millions of the discontented.

However, this positioning of his brand also carried the fundamental limitation of Besigye’s candidature. First, it forced Museveni to try and prove that the army was behind the president. So, in 2000-01, he unleashed the army against Besigye and his supporters. Soldiers were deployed everywhere, including polling stations. When Besigye complained against this, Museveni’s handlers pointed out that the soldiers were “Besigye’s supporters” by his own account. Why is he afraid of them?

Second, because Museveni has been in power for long, many interests have grown powerful and consolidated in politics: the army, the bureaucracy, and the private sector. Dislodging an entrenched regime like this requires finding some accommodation with such powerful interests; you have to make tactical compromises to win your strategic objective.

This is the lesson from Nelson Mandela and the democratic transition in South Africa in 1994, Robert Mugabe and the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 and Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the democratic transition in Chile in 1990. In all these cases, those who sought change offered credible structural guarantees to entrenched economic, military and others interests that had consolidated during the oppressive years.

By threatening retribution against senior army officers and powerful NRM insiders, Besigye galvanised the base of the opposition to Museveni. But he also rallied powerful interests to defend the status quo. Those who felt threatened by change were willing to do many things to defend Museveni’s stay in power.

Third, although there was strong hostility to Museveni in 2000 and 2005, there were equally many people who were undecided. Besigye’s style tended to mobilise and motivate the base of the opposition but failed to persuade the undecided. He was therefore unable to grow his constituency. I suspect that a more centrist candidature would have won over the undecided but most likely at the price of demoralising the base.

This is where Muntu’s candidate becomes at once timely and untimely. He is the quintessential moderate. His personality has the capacity to reassure many NRM and UPDF insiders, including Museveni personally, that they can leave power without going to jail. Yet precisely because he is not belligerent, Muntu cannot motivate passion among many of his followers to be fanatical about his candidature.

Two things define a campaign: persuasion and motivation. Persuasion is most effective when appealing to the undecided, motivation when appealing to your base. Since 2000, the undecided middle has been shrinking. If they constituted 40% in 2000, they could have fallen to 20% by 2005 due to the removal of term limits. The battles between Museveni and Mengo have shrunk the undecided even further to around 6%.

Therefore, what Muntu has in large measure was most valuable in 2000 more than today. This makes Besigye’s candidature even more necessary today than it was in 2000 or 2005. For FDC grassroots, Muntu is seeking to remove Besigye at a time when the opposition needs him most. The sacrifices Besigye has made in challenging Museveni have built for him such a powerful reputation that it is difficult to defeat him in FDC. Muntu may therefore attract the support of FDC leaders, but not its rank and file.

Yet given the depth of the polarisation in Uganda today, the opposition need a candidate who can make it possible for key NRM and UPDF insiders to consider a peaceful transfer of power. A strong Besigye candidature is what Museveni needs to rally his own will and the fanaticism of his supporters to dig in. But this would turn the election into a bloody affair; the only acceptable outcome for the opposition that Museveni can buy being what has happened in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Therefore, while Besigye’s belligerence and tough talk appeals to the masses below, Muntu’s sober and calm approach appeals to elites above. True, the opposition needs the masses to win, but their numbers can only bring about change if their voice finds the organised political expression which only elites can provide.

Most voters are now decided either for or against Museveni leaving few in the undecided column. So the opposition needs a candidate who can motivate its base to turn up and vote, which makes Besigye the best candidate. But it also needs a candidate who will reassure those most threatened by change – the most powerful politically – that they will not be persecuted if they hand over power.

While Muntu provides the necessary reassurance, he may achieve this at the price of removing vital enthusiasm from the opposition’s ranks. Therefore, Besigye is the best candidate for the opposition, Muntu the best candidate for Uganda.



Let me speculate. There are always ominous signs when a leader or regime is about to collapse. Take the example of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: There was the rum’s heart; then Cleopatra’s dream and later the soothsayer’s warning. There were equally also many ominous signs in 1969 to 1971 – the death of Brig. Okoya, the attempted assassination on Milton Obote, etc, that signalled his impending fall. A similar set of ominous signs were noted in 1977-79 and 1983-85 in Uganda.

I have always been suspicious of such predestination speculations leaving them to Timothy Kalyegira largely because they appear arbitrary. There are always bad events that can be used retrospectively to show that signs of collapse were there. But partly because of frustration with a corrupt and incompetent regime that does not seem to go away and partly because I am growing old and superstitious, I am inclined to believe that recent events in Uganda, like the burning down of Kasubi Tombs, signal the coming fall of Yoweri Museveni.

Since Kasubi fires many friends across our nation’s ethnic divide have written to me claiming it is Museveni who burnt down the tombs. They claim he wants to punish Mengo particularly and Baganda generally. I find this claim spurious because Museveni could not and cannot burn down those tombs. Nevertheless, the fact that such an idea gains wide currency shows how the degree of frustration with his regime is shaping political discourse in a way that makes his stay increasingly untenable.

In most of Africa, grief is always the point at which we forget our differences and rally together. In the case of Kasubi Tombs, I expected to see Baganda youth receive Museveni well for his attempted show of solidarity in their sorrow, but instead they did the unexpected and tried to block his access to the scene. Museveni responded with force, shooting to death a couple of them. Note that when his main opponent Kizza Besigye turned up, he was well received by the same youths.

Museveni seems to now believe in his politically invulnerability. He grossly underestimates the fires of hatred he is stoking in Buganda by his relentless assaults on the cultural and institutional integrity of the kingdom. His belief that bribing a few Baganda elites will enable him win the hearts and minds of the ordinary Baganda is mistaken.

His continued closure of the kingdom’s CBS radio is doing more propaganda against him that when it was on air. For example, imagine the number of Baganda who used to listen to CBS and enjoy its programmes! They used to call it “rediyo yaffe” (our radio station). Baganda have lost many symbols of their past glory; CBS was the only new source of pride. We should not be surprised when the other pillar of their cultural pride burns down and Baganda think Museveni is responsible for it as well.

Museveni’s regime is even more vulnerable from the changing demographics of Uganda. One of his major achievements has been to sustain rapid economic growth for over two decades. This has reduced infant mortality rates thus creating a huge new electorate. Growth has also fostered the emergence of various social groups – an educated middleclass and a sizeable private sector. Equally, there has been a boom in both public and private education. Many youth are leaving school and finding nothing or little to do. They are now turning into militants seeking change.

There is a clear disconnect between the achievements Uganda has registered under Museveni’s stewardship (especially because of the bold reforms he took in the late 1980s and the early to mid 1990s) and the nature of the regime that he presides over today. Sustained growth has grown hand in hand with the near collapse of public goods and services, as public schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, public buildings, etc., have deteriorated rapidly, becoming pale shadows of their past glory.

This disconnect has alienated many people – not just the youths who cannot find jobs, but most ordinary citizens who cannot find nurses, doctors or drugs in hospitals. Equally, the middleclass that furnishes the organisation, leadership and ideas for other classes is disenchanted. Many have bought cars but cannot drive through our potholed roads and those who have built nice homes cannot access them due to bad roads. These grievances are the social dynamite that is only held in check because of failure to find organised political expression.

Next year, Uganda will have 12.9 million voting-age citizens. Museveni himself will be 67 years; and only 2.4m voters will be above 60 years. Most voters will be aged 18 to 30 – these were either unborn or below 5 years when he came to power in 1986. They are not as intimidated by the sight of soldiers (witness how they courageous tried to block him at Kasubi tombs) largely because Museveni’s other achievement has been to demystify the army.

As I have always argued, I believe that those who seek to unseat Museveni should first internalise his achievements before they address his failures. It is in his achievements that they can find the quarry that will furnish them rocks to stone him out of power. Because even Mengo that today offers inspiration for his opponents is actually one of Museveni’s achievements – the restoration of traditional rulers.

In many ways therefore, Museveni will not fall because he has been a failure but because he has been a success. He is clearly a man who represents our past, not our future. If we focused on the late 1980s to late 1990s, there are many of his reforms in every aspect of our institutional and policy life that reflect him in bright light. There is little since then we can adduce as evidence of his accomplishments.

He has been transformative enough to preside over a government that has produced the very social forces that now seek his downfall. I do not know whether (given his excellent command of political economy) he appreciates this perspective. The opposition needs to appeal to those who have benefited from Museveni’s rule (UPE and USE graduates, the middleclass, the private sector, teachers, etc) more than those who have lost (illiterate peasants) to secure victory.